Explore: In the Spanish badlands with Fernwee

What does it take to complete a 750-kilometre ultra-race through the Almerían deserts? Martijn van Strien, also known as Fernwee, recounts the preparation, tears and determination it took to get through one of cycling’s toughest events

“It definitely feels like you’re alone in the world, because it doesn’t feel like anything we know. It feels very remote and solitary. Also kind of harsh and dangerous. You’re in a desert and you’re always on edge because you know if something happens, you’re f*cked.”

Badlands are a type of dry terrain where softer rocks and clay-rich soils have been heavily eroded. They are characterised by steep slopes, minimal vegetation and dry air. Geologic forms such as ravines and gullies are common in badlands. In Spain, badlands are found in the deserts of Gorafe and Tabernas in Almería. They can be menacing and perilous places for bike riders.

Martijn van Strien (known to many of his online followers as Fernwee) is someone who has never been afraid to venture into the unknown and push himself to the limits. It’s why he and two friends entered the ‘Badlands’, a 750km ultra-race with 15,000m of climbing, through some of the most remote and challenging terrain in Europe. The event skirts through the stunning forests of Sierra de Huétor, the deserts of Gorafe and Tabernas, the wild coasts of Cabo de Gata and the steep climbs of La Alpujarra. It also crests the highest paved road in Europe, Pico Veleta. Van Strien completed the event for the first time in 2021 and came back to do it bigger and better this year.

“It was three of us trying to get the most out of ourselves and get to know how we respond to something like this,” says Van Strien. “It’s the most interesting thing to  throw yourself in a situation that you really cannot prepare for or can imagine how it will be.

“For all of us, it’s the ultimate adventure. We’ve all raced on the road before, whether it be fixed gear, or regular road races, so we’ve had that sort of competitive spirit,” he says. “The only way to get that competition and still be super adventurous where you really don’t know where you’re going to be tonight or tomorrow, or what’s going to happen, is in these types of races. So it’s just a perfect fit.”

For many, just finishing this brutal route in harsh, hot conditions is an achievement in itself, but Van Strien entered the race this  year with bigger ambitions. He wanted a top-10 finish, and believed it was possible. “In my mind, I figured the only way, or the best  way, to get that result was by not sleeping at all during the event. I sort of forced myself not to sleep by not bringing any sleeping  stuff. Which ended up being the worst decision I could have made.”  

Decisions and calculations about kit choices, fueling strategies and sleep times  form a crucial part of any rider’s preparation for an ultra-event like Badlands. A rider might be the strongest person in the race, but if they are sleep deprived and out of energy, this will ruin any chances of getting a result.  

“You plan beforehand. You need to figure out where you’ll be able to get water because there were stretches of almost 100  kilometres where you couldn’t get water,” explains Van Strien. “On a normal ride, that doesn’t sound too bad, but 100 kilometres can take almost 16 hours to ride on the terrain there and if you don’t have any water for 16 hours, then you’re not going to have a good time.”

Van Strien feels like he is improving in terms of bike setup and equipment choices. “It doesn’t feel like we’re on top of our game yet,” he says. “We’re expanding, experimenting all the time. We don’t have one dialled setup that we think, ‘Okay, this is it, I know this is the right tyre.’ It’s about trying to make things work and if it doesn’t, next time we’ll do it better.”

Van Strien’s escapades in ultra-racing means he is constantly pushing his equip- ment to the limits. This makes him the perfect tester for the latest innovations in cycling technology, able to check if products can go the distance over crazy terrain. He’s supported by technology company Hammerhead, and used the brand’s Karoo 2 head unit throughout the Badlands. With its mapping and navigation features to guide him  through the complicated landscapes, and intuitive software to help him keep on top of his metrics, the Karoo 2 was one of the most important parts of Van Strien’s equipment.

“The screen is the best screen you can find out there, which helps you in the dark and in the day when there’s bright sun; it’s very clear and it’s easy to use,” explains Van Strien. He notes that he and his teammates constantly give feedback to Hammerhead developers and technicians: “They’re interested in our experience with it. Seeing us testing products to the extremes helps to make the next generation even better.” Equipment choice is one thing, but being physically prepared for an event like  Badlands is another.

In 2022, the winner of the event, Sebastian Breuer, completed the 750-kilometre distance in 43 hours and 40 minutes, but for the majority of competitors, it can take close to 100 hours or more. When I ask Netherlands-based Van Strien how he trained for Badlands, his answer surprises me.  

“We don’t really train, we just ride a lot. So we do a lot of big rides, but only because we enjoy those big rides. We never go solo with our headphones in and ride for 200 kilometres because we think we need to do that  to be able to ride Badlands,” he says.  

“What draws us is big adventures. Taking our stuff and going riding into Belgium  and sleeping there in the cabin, then the next day riding back. It’s just what we enjoy. The adventures we go on throughout the year,  those are the preparation that we do for Badlands. It’s stuff like just knowing your gear, knowing how to set up a tent, knowing your bike if you’re stranded somewhere and then you have to fix it.” 

As Van Strien tells me about the hardships he faced in Badlands, it becomes clear  that he had to draw on all of his previous experience to give him the strength to complete the event. After beginning the race with his lofty top-10 ambition, the Dutch athlete was forced to overcome disappointment: on the opening day, it became obvious that this would not be achievable.

“My goal was to be a lot faster than the last time, and to not make the mistakes that we did, because I felt like we stopped too much. I really didn’t want to stop this time, I wanted to ride for 60 hours and be done with it but it took me over 100 hours in the end, so it didn’t work out,” he says.

So what went wrong?

“I went out way too hard on the first day,” says Van Strien.”After 150 kilometres, I was up four hours on last year’s schedule, but then after 20 hours, I couldn’t even ride any more. I had to walk, even if the road was pitching up just two or three per cent, because I was super nauseous.  

“That whole first day I was pushing and feeling good about it, but I wasn’t really eating because I was pushing a little bit too hard. I should have known after five hours that I wasn’t going to be able to hold on to this, but just thought, maybe it will work.” After hour 20 ticked by on Van Strien’s Karoo 2, things started to take a turn for the worse. “I cried a little bit and tried to sleep for two hours on the ground,” he explains. After making the decision to not bring any sleeping equipment with him, Van Strien was left to lie in his lycra on the cold, hard, desert floor, making it near impossible for him to get any sleep. It was a shift in mindset that helped him rediscover the motivation to continue.

“I thought, what am I going to do? Am I going to scratch and leave the race and go home? Or am I going to try to recover a little bit and at least finish?” he says. “I flipped the switch and decided: I’m going to take three days to finish the rest of the route and I’m going to enjoy it. And that’s what I did. I really enjoyed the three days afterwards and felt better every day on the bike.

“You also don’t really have a choice,” he adds. “Because nobody’s going to pick you up from the side of the road. You need to get on your bike and go in one direction. Somehow you find yourself again. When you do that, it’s okay.”

For Van Strien and the two other riders who are part of his ‘Ride Beyond Crew’ who  completed the Badlands, showing the difficult parts of the experience to their followers was of utmost importance. The group produced an hour-long film documenting their experiences in Spain, and weren’t afraid to show the honest, raw emotion that comes with completing an ultra event.

“I was filming myself during the race and I just needed to capture the hard moments,” says Van Strien. “I want the films we make to be as raw as possible. Because I’m the one usually holding the camera, I always say to the others, I’m going to film everything. If you break down, if you’re crying, vomiting, if you break your leg, I’m going to be filming it. Don’t bother me saying that I can’t film it because I will, but afterwards, you can tell me if it’s not okay to put it in the video.”

Alongside filming themselves on GoPros throughout the event, the Ride Beyond Crew also had a videographer on a motorbike following the race – who himself covered 2,500  kilometres to catch the team at different points on the route. As part of the media rules of Badlands, the videographer wasn’t allowed to speak to the riders competing.

“If you really want to have the ultra-racing, self-supported spirit, then you don’t want a camera team with you because it does influence your mood,” says Van Strien.

The Dutchman explains that he thinks other sports films can mask the darkest moments riders go through when completing big challenges, and this is a void he wants to fill with his documentaries.

“I want it to be super raw and emotional. This is not an advertisement for the Badlands race, but then again, I do want our  films to have the best cinematography and the best footage of beautiful places we ride through, so it does feel like an advertisement  for cycling in general, for what cycling can bring to a person,” explains Van Strien. After the highs and lows of what he went through, and the fact that he wasn’t able to complete the goal he set himself of finishing Badlands in the top 10, will Van Strien return to the brutal dirt tracks of Almería again in 2023?

“We won’t go back to this specific race, because one of the most important things for us is that it’s unknown where we are headed,” says Van Strien. He and the Ride Beyond Crew are adventurers at heart, and they are driven by fresh challenges, by loading new routes onto their Hammerheads and by following the map into the unknown.  

“We have four of these types of races on our provisional calendar for next year.  One in Peru, one in the Pyrenees and others in many different places,” says Van  Strien. “After doing Badlands, I now know one hundred per cent that this type of ultra-racing is for me. But there’s so much to explore that I don’t think I’ll ever do the same race twice.”

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